United Campus Workers website
Public university employees in states lacking collective bargaining rights aren’t letting that exclude them from the current wave of union organizing and action in higher education.
Their efforts to build faculty-staff coalitions and improve working conditions despite lacking university recognition or contracts harkens back to higher education organizing before the Cold War.
“What’s happening now is a new regeneration of that concept, that wall-to-wall organizing,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
Unlike for private employers, which are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board, states decide whether to offer public university workers collective bargaining rights.
“Wall-to-wall” means trying to unite all workers into a single bargaining unit, even or especially when collective bargaining—the officially sanctioned bargaining process leading to an officially recognized contract—isn’t available.
“It’s literally an old-school form of labor organizing,” said Herbert, whose center is at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. In a 2017 history published in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, he wrote about what he calls “the little-remembered United Public Workers of America.”
“UPWA and its predecessor unions played important roles in advancing collective bargaining in education and other fields in the 1940s,” he wrote. “They sought to organize wall-to-wall educational units that included faculty and staff for purposes of collective bargaining, and they successfully negotiated some of the first contracts covering teachers and faculty.”
“The successful anti-communist attacks on UPWA, and the demise of the [New School for Social Research’s unionized] Dramatic Workshop, lowered the curtain on faculty collective bargaining in higher education, which did not resume until decades later when the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began organizing faculty for purposes of collective bargaining in the late 1960s and 1970s,” he wrote.
“A union is fundamentally an organization of people,” said Melanie Barron, a senior campaign lead for United Campus Workers, “and we have the freedom of assembly, the right of association with any group we choose. And so we can exercise those rights at the workplace, whether we have this one particular tactic available to us or not. Like, collective bargaining wasn’t always a thing.”
United Campus Workers, affiliated with the Communications Workers of America and the AFL-CIO umbrella union organization, is a prominent organizer in non–collective bargaining states.
“Tenure fights are a huge part of what people are talking about right now, almost everywhere,” Barron said. “And then also staff issues. People think of universities mainly as faculty, graduate student types of organizing, but there are also enormous workforces of staff that play a critical role in making universities function, and usually they are pretty underpaid and have a lot of issues.”
Barron said UCW works to unite these different constituencies.
“And we do so without waiting for the legal framework to catch up with the idea that workers need unions in this country,” she said.
UCW says it formed in 2000 at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where Barron was a graduate worker, out of campaign for a living wage for staff.
Since 2017, Barron said, UCW has expanded into 10 new states in the South and West. Of those, only two allow collective bargaining at public universities: Florida and Colorado, and the latter for staff only.
The UCW Florida chapter opened in 2021, but UCW isn’t officially recognized there yet, Barron said.
“There are places where collective bargaining is a part of the conversation, and we want to see that,” she said. She said part of what UCW does is organize workers “to have an impact at the Legislature, because we elect our bosses—we elect the people who make a lot of decisions about higher education funding and how money is spent and all of those things and, yeah, the future of collective bargaining—should we ever have it.”
Over the past five years, according to Barron’s figures, the number of dues-paying UCW members nationally has grown from about 2,550 to 6,950. The largest net membership growth over those past five years came in the first two years of the pandemic, when membership grew by 2,960 and chapters opened at 19 universities in six new states.
Arizona was among those. Alex Young said the UCW chapter at Arizona State University grew out of activism in the pandemic’s early days, when employees felt in-person teaching and deficient COVID-19 mitigation threatened themselves and their disabled colleagues.
Young, a nontenured associate teaching professor at Barrett, the ASU Honors College, said he thinks being in a union helped engage members in political canvassing—he canvassed for Katie Hobbs, the Democrat who won the governorship in 2022.
“In the political realm like that, it’s gotten us more representation that we could have possibly had just sort of working as individual faculty or staff members,” he said.
“The path to collective bargaining is very long here and would mean flipping the state Legislature,” Young said. “But, you know, flipping the governor’s office seemed like a pretty distant goal two years ago.”
But Young said wall-to-wall organizing also creates an imperative to unite workers who may have different political beliefs—by using common labor concerns.
“A staff member working for $40,000 a year, whatever it might be, all year long isn’t going to be particularly moved by contingent faculty members’ desire for a research sabbatical,” Young said, “so when the shop isn’t just kind of strictly defined by a working role as it would be in an NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] situation, that creates the necessity of really kind of broadening your perspective on what the sort of labor struggles are on campus. For me, personally, it’s made me focus more on some people who are facing more dire situations than the one I’m in.”
Wendy Goldberg, a nontenured lecturer in writing at the University of Mississippi, said she’s been with UCW since a chapter opened on her campus in 2018.
“I think the most important thing in this phenomenon is—the biggest challenge is to help people understand that they can join the union and that we are guaranteed the right to organize even if we don’t have collective bargaining,” Goldberg said.
“A lot of things that we can do in a non–collective bargaining union is to educate people about their rights, to inform the public about our positions, to have petitions and teach-ins,” she said. “There’s a lot of things in our, quote, arsenal to do that can be successful.”
Barron said an inspiring example of making change without collective bargaining came from West Virginia’s statewide public school worker strikes in 2018 and 2019.
Teachers, bus drivers and other workers—who are represented by unions including the AFT and NEA, but don’t have collective bargaining rights—banded together to shut down every public school statewide and flood the state capitol building with protestors. They halted cuts to their health coverage and won pay raises.
“They didn’t have the legal right to strike,” Barron said, “but they made it impossible for anyone to ignore them or just punish them all outright. They won.”
West Virginia Campus Workers, a non-UCW group, is organizing at West Virginia University. It’s affiliated with AFT Academics.
Leslie Wilber, a member and graduate student who teaches English classes, said WVCW went public as a union in spring 2022 but had been organizing as far back as 2020. At a demonstration last week, WVU graduate workers publicly signed up for food stamps and demanded pay increases and fee eliminations.
“West Virginia in particular has this really powerful labor history, and we’re proud to be a part of it,” she said. “But we also know … because of that history, you only win these rights by fighting for them.”
“We become a union by acting like one,” she said.
Unions for Private University Grad Students
Under federal law, private university employees can unionize—except, generally, tenured and tenure-track faculty, following a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
But Matthew Thomas, a Duke University Ph.D. student who teaches and assists in teaching classes there, said organizing in a Southern, right-to-work state still presents added challenges.
Right-to-work laws mean that even when a union earns official recognition and negotiates a contract with the employer, the workers the union is supposed to represent still don’t have to pay dues supporting it. The Service Employees International Union–affiliated Duke Graduate Students Union, which Thomas co-chairs, is currently trying to earn recognition after a failed attempt in 2016–17.
“It adds another job for us—to organize folks to bring them into membership—whereas, you know, in another place, they would automatically be a member,” Thomas said. He said other, already recognized Duke unions face this issue.
“I think it’s a resource limitation, and it also undercuts sort of the organizing culture on campus,” he said.
Like the public university employees who don’t have collective bargaining rights, Thomas said his organization has still achieved progress without that imprimatur.
He pointed to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics data showing that North Carolina has the second-lowest union membership rate among wage and salaried workers over all, at just 2.8 percent. South Carolina has the lowest, at 1.7 percent. The highest percentages were just over 20 percent in New York and Hawaii.
“I think it just creates more of an uphill battle,” he said of the low Southern unionization rates, “but I think one thing about the prevailing culture of organizing here is that it makes the work feel a lot more significant.”